Institutional barriers to equality in America

With the 2016 presidential election came a lot of political movement from all sides, ranging from liberals, progressives, conservatives, etc. One interesting outcome that arose from the election, however, was a candidate who publicly criticized capitalism. Although I do not necessarily think Bernie Sanders is as critical and insightful about our economic system as he could be, a presidential candidate mentioning socialist ideals in a positive light is a step in the right direction. There are other groups that serve such a purpose, which present alternative economic and social systems as well. That is not what I am here to discuss, though. Today, I would like to write about an issue pervasive in the Bernie Sanders movement in addition to other movements critical of capitalism. These groups are predominantly white, and therefore have a disappointing lack of intersectionality between race and class.

The most common idea shared amongst these groups is that capitalism targets everyone who does not have a wealthy lifestyle. To be sure, the middle and working classes are exploited by our economic system; the former for their hyper-consumerist tendencies and the latter for their labor. It is a comforting thought that, despite your white privilege, you can have solidarity with the oppressed. This comfort is what attracts so many cishet white men to these movements and is potentially their most damaging attribute. It is true that exploitation under capitalism is a circumstance many of us share. However, I think that many of these men are ignorant of the degrees of privilege and oppression present in such a system. What these anti-capitalist movements lack is intersectionality.

Take the Zeitgeist Movement, for example. It’s train of thought has a lot of interesting insight about capitalism through historical and sociological analysis. By reading some of their work, I have learned much about the systemic violence and issues inherent to capitalism. However, there is very little about the various degrees of oppression that affect people based on race, gender, sexuality, etc. If I had no education about such intersectionality, it would be very easy to assume that we all suffer equally under the oppressive nature of capitalism. Many cishet white men of the working class assume patriarchal and domineering mindsets, sadly, and do not think to ally with marginalized people, despite their status in capitalist society. The fact that so few men of this class status are aware of the intersectionality of oppression under capitalism points to a failure in education.

Regarding this particular problem, the American education system has two major flaws: it does not necessitate critical thinking nor does it educate us about social justice issues. The fact that the flat Earth movement has such a large following is indicative of this. I also think that, if college were free, our country would be in a much better state. We are not taught to question and analyze media thoughtfully or critically, resulting in many Americans believing poorly conceived ideas. Moreover, classes like history consistently shovel useless information down our throats, leaving less room for insightful ideas that challenge the mainstream narrative. The way I see it, the education system is becoming increasingly watered down as time passes. Just like the standard for “small” soda sizes at movie theatres is becoming larger, our standard of critical thought is lowering. The fact that AP classes, which foster a more interesting sharing of ideas, are so small leads to few people leaving high school with the necessary preparation for college and critical analysis.

Instead, the bar for lower-level classes should be raised. At the same time, we need to have better equal opportunity education, rather than white cishet men receiving the majority of classroom attention. A primary cause of this is a lack of social justice awareness in public education. Over the course of twelve years, I do not remember a single lesson teaching social justice or intersectionality. The closest I came was in my senior year, when my College Possible coach had bestowed some of her liberal arts knowledge upon us. I did not even realize that, until I came to Lawrence, the public education system prioritized white cishet men above marginalized groups. As Bell Hooks writes in her book We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, “Smart black boys who want to be heard, then and now, often find themselves cast out, deemed troublemakers, and placed in slow classes or in special classes that are mere containment cells for those deemed delinquent.” This is one example of how, to suppress marginalized groups, our society has structural and institutional barriers in place. Those of the black community who show potential despite the education system’s efforts are seen as a threat. If we had teachers, students and faculty who were more educated about these issues, I think things would be much more positive.

Rather than pinning the responsibility of creating change on people of color, since people of color have struggled enough as it is and they do not owe it to white people to explain themselves, the solution lies elsewhere. Us white people, and people involved in white communities, who are educated about social justice, must stop the ignorant in their tracks through education and awareness. An imperative place to begin is with faculty and teachers in the public education system, who are majority white, because changing such an institution will create exponential change. This is not to say that it is up to the white people to save everyone else; in fact, it is our whiteness and privilege that prevent us from having experiential knowledge. Therefore, I think it is important for people of color and other marginalized groups to share their experiences through art, scholarly writing, etc. From there, it is up to us educated white people to put a halt to any microaggressions or bigoted thoughts that manifest in our communities. Change occurs rapidly from within than without.

Nero Gallagher